Lessons of the May 1 ‘Day without an Immigrant’

Millions of immigrant workers and their allies marked May 1, 2006—International Workers Day—with strikes, walkouts, and boycotts of U.S.-produced products, demonstrations and vigils across the United States. It was a historic day for the U.S. working class.

Los Angeles, May 1, 2006

Photo: Raymond White

The massive day of action—known as “A Day without Immigrants” or “The Great American Boycott”—was called by progressive immigrant groups in Los Angeles following the million-strong protest there on March 25. It was the latest in a wave of protests against the racist Sensenbrenner bill, which would criminalize undocumented immigrants, their families and their supporters.

The U.S. ruling class and their big business press immediately set out to minimize the scope of what took place on May Day. Press reports grossly undercounted the many demonstrations. They opened up a propaganda campaign claiming that the boycott had harmed the immigrants’ cause by threatening to provoke a “backlash.”

But that propaganda was a further testament to the display of strength that had been unleashed on May 1.

Demonstrations took place in large and small cities—many which had not seen the likes of such protests in decades. Rural communities like San Jacinto, Calif. witnessed the shutdown of its agricultural sector, as hundreds of workers did not show up for work. Other protests took place in Nebraska, Alabama, Alaska, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Arkansas and Utah—practically every state was the scene of protests. It was truly a nationwide mobilization, reaching deep into communities across the United States.

Major cities were focal points for demonstrations. Over 750,000 marched in Chicago. Another 150,000 took to the streets in San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands marched in New York and tens of thousands joined demonstrations in Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, Houston, Portland and other cities.

But once again, the epicenter of the struggle was in Los Angeles. Two large marches and other area protests brought out well over a million people, according to organizers’ estimates. The ports of Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach—among the busiest in the country—came to a halt, with 90 percent of the shipping shut down. Major commercial areas, like the produce market and the fashion district, were quiet. Some 72,000 students boycotted school that day, with many joining in the protests.

One of the goals of “A Day without Immigrants” was to show the economic power that immigrants wield in the United States. There are reportedly 12 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States, and millions of other new and first-generation immigrants.

While the boycott affected all areas of the economy nationally, some areas were hit more heavily than others. Service sectors as well as construction and restaurant businesses were heavily hit as millions opted out of the economy for the day.

One figure reported by ABC News on May 2 estimated that the cost of the boycott in Los Angeles alone totaled about $300 million—a fifth of its daily intake. The Los Angeles Unified School District reported a loss of about $2 million.

The boycott had an international scope as well. Workers in Mexico and throughout Central and South America did not buy products from U.S.-based corporations.

A multi-class movement

The sheer scope of the boycott and the demonstrations had the hallmarks of a broad movement of a nationally oppressed people within the multinational United States, similar in some ways to the struggle for African American national and democratic rights. The movement gained a foothold among various classes in the primarily Latino immigrant communities.

The vast majority of those who took part in the day of action were workers—in fact, among the most oppressed and exploited workers in the United States. Hundreds of thousands risked their jobs and livelihoods to participate in the boycott and demonstrations.

“We are sick of the crumbs they have thrown at us for years” said Vilma Vasquez, a Salvadoran worker in Los Angeles. “We are workers, not criminals, and we want equality and will continue in this struggle until we get the rights that all workers deserve.”

At the same time, the boycott also won the support of small business owners and even some big corporations.

Commentator Juan Gonzalez, writing in New York’s Daily News on May 2, described a scene that was replicated in cities across the country. “All you had to do was look down normally bustling St. Nicholas Ave. in Washington Heights yesterday to sense an astonishing event was underway,” he wrote. Washington Heights is an overwhelmingly Dominican neighborhood in northern Manhattan.

He quoted the owners of a neighborhood hardware store who closed their shop to support the protest. “Virtually every store owner along St. Nicholas made the same decision, even if that meant turning away a few almighty dollars for one day. … Over on Broadway, it was the same story.”

Even big corporations felt obligated to respond to the boycott. Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, shut down nine of its 15 beef and pork processing plants across the United States. Six of 14 Perdue Farms plants closed as well.

Goya Foods suspended delivery of its products in every state except Florida, taking its 300 trucks off the roads. Goya spokesperson Olga Luz told the Associated Press on May 1 that the company wanted to “express solidarity with immigrants.”

“It’s going to have a very significant economic impact,” Luz said, referring to the effect of the delivery suspension on the company’s operations.

Of course, business owners responded to the boycott with different motives. Some support one or another version of immigration reform, whether it is Bush’s “guest worker” plan or some version of a “path toward citizenship,” as a way to regularize their exploitation of this labor force. Others were forced to accept the boycott by the determination of their employees or customers.

Still others, especially Latino and other immigrant small business owners, embrace the movement as a democratic struggle against anti-immigrant racism and for the rights of “their community.”

Different slogans, different class interests

The different class forces that shape the immigration rights movement found expression in different slogans and tactics from the first mass demonstrations in March and leading up to the May 1 day of actions.

For the vast majority of immigrant workers, the central demand that summarized their interests was for amnesty—full rights for immigrant workers. It captured their desire to work free from harassment and violence, to live with their families without fear of deportation and to allow them to participate and organize openly.

Other forces, including many business owners and social democratic forces in the labor movement tied to the Democratic Party, tried to harness the movement into supporting pro-employer versions of immigration “reform” legislation that would give the bosses ultimate power over immigrants’ legal status. Some supported Bush’s “guest worker” program, while others favored a “path to citizenship” that made immigrants’ legal status dependant on their employment.

This also shaped attitudes toward the May 1 boycott. Many reformists stood harshly against the boycott.

For example, in Los Angeles, the Catholic Church’s Cardinal Roger Mahony denounced the boycott. “Go to work, go to school, and then join thousands of us at a major rally afterward,” he implored. Mahony and other Catholic Church personalities on the one hand try to exploit the immigration issue so as not to lose touch with a large sector of the church’s following, while on other hand they try to appease layers of the state.

Mahony, like many other reformist leaders, see immigrants as victims—not as a sector of the working class with vast potential to bring about revolutionary change.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also spoke out against the boycott and called for students to remain in school.

This game of trying to pacify the people in the streets and appease the capitalist ruling class that exploits them is not unique to Los Angeles. In Las Vegas, Pilar Weiss, political director for Culinary Union Local 226 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, said, “Our stance has been we don’t support boycotting work. We’re all fighting for comprehensive immigration reform. We’re not trying to cause any damage to the casino industry, which has been very supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.”

In fact, around the country, few unions called on their members to support the May 1 boycott in any way. While some unions provided behind-the-scenes logistical support, the labor movement for the most part stood on the sidelines as millions of workers heroically took to the streets, risking their jobs and livelihoods for basic democratic rights.

Raids and threatened ‘backlash’

San Francisco, May 1, 2006

Photo: Bernie Fox

The U.S. ruling class did not stand by as the May 1 actions gained momentum. A week before the boycott, almost 2,000 immigrants—primarily Latino—were arrested and deported in immigration raids. The raids were clearly aimed at steering the working class away from unity and militant action.

But after millions stood up to government threats and bosses’ intimidation, the tactics of the ruling class changed. Almost from the moment the success of the boycott was apparent, big business news media opened up a wide propaganda campaign: the boycott had actually harmed the immigrants’ cause.

Consider a May 3 article in the Sacramento Bee titled “Will boycott help or hurt immigrants?” “Many Americans, even many who support the undocumented migrants’ wish for legal status, had warned that staying away from work and school might provoke a backlash,” the article opined.

The May 3 Washington Post was more decided. “After protests, backlash grows,” ran the headline. The article quotes a variety of anti-immigrant bigots, and publicized a number of right-wing web sites whose goal is to build a wall at the Mexican border, threatening the lives of those who try to cross the border in search of work.

Other articles claimed that the boycott would increase the activities of racist vigilante groups like the Minutemen that carry out armed attacks on immigrants at the borders.

It is the same argument that was brought up at the time of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, when African Americans boldly opposed racial segregation on Alabama’s public transit system. In Alabama and across the nation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement was told that tactics like boycotts and sit-ins were too aggressive and would create a backlash from white workers.

In fact, the tactics did generate a reaction from white racists. Ku Klux Klan organizing and violence increased. African American students who rode buses to desegregated schools were stoned. In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and the racist White Citizens Councils blocked Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School.

But the civil rights movement did not tone itself down to accommodate the racists. On the contrary—it grew in scope and militancy. The continued struggles of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, the Deacons for Defense, and the emerging Black liberation movement cleared the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that ended legal apartheid in the U.S. South and opened the door for affirmative action and other social gains.

It is a lesson for today’s immigrant rights movement.

In fact, these attacks and propaganda campaigns show how seriously the U.S. ruling class views the new movement. What it fears most is that immigrant workers—indeed, all workers—will feel the political strength that is held in their labor power. The ruling class fears that their political strength will be measured not at the ballot box for one or another ruling class politician, but in their ability to effect political change through their organization and position as the producers of society’s wealth. It fears that the immigration rights movement will develop a sense of its revolutionary potential.

This movement also shows the great prospects for all U.S.-born workers to learn from their immigrant sisters and brothers. Solidarity with the immigrants’ struggle for basic democratic rights can open the door for a new, united working class movement against exploitation and the decades-old anti-worker offensive in the United States.
Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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